Most folk don’t take nearly enough time to notice it. These days way too much ugliness hides the beauty that’s always around us. Even when we don’t pay attention, beauty surprises us with magic and mystery. Beauty is a lot like hope.
The magical appearance of beauty is, indeed, in the eye of the beholder. For me, beauty can inspire me by color and movement, by the shimmering stars on a clear night, by the magnificence of a tree’s movement in the breeze, by looking into the eyes of my grandchildren. Beauty is there for us always—to be seen, to be heard, to be sensed deeply in our bodies and in our spirits.
These days, I need more of it—more hope, more beauty. I need more visions of beauty to supersede the ugliness of injustice, division, racism, misogyny, homophobia, political warring, brokenhearted immigrants looking for life, mass shootings, Covid, gun violence, child trafficking, suffering in Ukraine—all the varied chaos around the world.
And then there are the people here and there who bring grace to us all by transforming ugliness into beautyand hope.
As for the beauty revealed in the opening photo, I don’t know who created it or photographed it. I do know that he or she is a person who finds beauty in unlikely places at unexpected times, and translates that beauty into grace to be shared with those who most need it.
Who knows about that image? The striking silhouette of the trees, the birds flying above, the twinkling stars in the sky, and all of that with swirls of color that seem to me like holy movement. Regardless of the source of that photograph, I like to believe that its beauty—all beauty—comes directly from God as grace for me, and for you.
I have always been drawn to honeybees, mesmerized by them and by the beekeepers who care for them. Once many years ago, I put on the beekeepers garb and that big, fashionable hat with the dark veil of netting. A friend who had several hives was teaching me how to handle the bees. I actually held them in my hands, rather hesitantly, while noticing how gently the beekeeper held them. From this uncomfortably close proximity, I was able to listen to the buzzing sound of the honeybees, buzzing that I did not hear as harsh, but rather hushed. The honeybees greeted him when he approached the hive. When he held them in his hands and they moved up his arms, it looked like a graceful dance of the beekeeper and his constantly moving honeybees totally in sync with one another. How could one not be enchanted by this wonder of creation?
Yesterday while reading a fascinating interview with Tom Blue Wolf, I was reminded of those breathtaking moments I spent with the honeybees. Tom is a descendant of the AniCoosa, which means “peaceful people,” who are also known as the Creek Tribe, which is a part of the Muscogee Nation. He is a Native American spiritual guide, a man in love with nature, and a keeper of honeybees. One of the questions he was asked in the interview was, “What is it like to be in the presence of the bees, to listen to them?” This is how Tom Blue Wolf responded.
Creator is always talking to us. Most of us are about seven echoes away from the true voice of the Creator. Try to get closer, try to get maybe three echoes away. If you get too close, it’s almost too intense for most people. Like a burning bush. Aaaaah!
His response to the follow-up question was just as intriguing . . .
“What do you and the bees do for each other on the spiritual journey?
How is your relationship to them a spiritual one?”
They give life, and we protect it. We keep the harm away from them; we protect them. I have been in love with honeybees all my life . . . We beekeepers are integral to the bees’ world. They know us; they are in our dreams. We tend to them barefoot, they crawl all over us, they kiss us, they tickle us. It’s hard to talk about. So, of course we think it’s spiritual. Absolutely. The bees love us and we love them.
That kind of spiritual relationship between a human being and one of God’s created inhabitants of the earth would place any of us in a sacred space. Tom Blue Wolf described a state of being as “three echoes away from the true voice of the Creator.” It’s the kind of space most of us never enter, and for so many reasons—we don’t have time; we’re busy with our jobs; we have children to care for, laundry to do, and a plethora of responsibilities listed on the to-do list we seldom complete. We simply get too busy to embrace the beauty of nature and draw closer to the Creator.
Tom Blue Wolf would summon us, if he could, to be “three echoes away” from God’s true voice. So he writes about the Creator, the creation and the importance of protecting it, and our role as caretakers. He urges humans to follow the guidelines of Saint Francis, who thought it critical to have a close and enduring relationship with nature.
From the years I spent as a postulant in the Order of Ecumenical Franciscans, I learned about the many ways Saint Frances was devoted to the best characteristics of what it means to be a human being on the planet: benevolent, loving, kind, gentle, merciful, reverent, respectful. He treated every life form with dignity.
Saint Francis helps us pull ourselves out of the trap of being completely focused on two-legged humans. An example of that shows how most people describe a destructive incident only be the impact it has on humans. They might report, for instance, that a plane crashed and “we lost 180 people.” Or “the fire killed four hundred people.” In contrast, Saint Francis would say, “Not only did we lose four hundred brothers and sisters, but we also lost three thousand acres of Mother Earth’s flesh. We lost sixty-four thousand winged ones. We lost untold amounts of water, and what’s left is toxic and the ones that swim are no longer with us.”
Like Saint Frances, perhaps we should focus more of our attention on the natural world, the magnificent creation given to us by the Creator God we worship. For one thing, attention to the creation and its Creator draws us into holy moments that we desperately need for our spiritual nurture. If we lean into those holy moments, and linger there for a time, the burdens we carry could become lighter. The cares that dishearten us might become uncommonly dim. And we just might find ourselves in a most sacred space—the one that places us “three echoes away” from God’s whisper. And as an added grace, perhaps we will also hear the gentle buzz of honeybees!
If you know me at all, you know that I am a minister, an artist and a writer. Those three are not all of who I am, but they encompass a big chunk of my identity. You may also know that I find deep spiritual nurture from images like the Northern Lights image above. It’s breathtaking. I cannot fathom the sense of wonder of a person who is physically present, in person, looking up into this wondrous sky.
What sort of Creator gave us the ethereal experience of witnessing these Lights of the North? What grace we receive when we take even a moment to breathe it in, to see its splendor, even in a photograph! As spiritual beings who are on a pilgrimage on this earth, we know what it is like to experience darkness.
I imagine that we do everything we can to avoid the dark places of our journey. You know about those dark places—losing a loved one, living with illness, being suddenly injured, moving out of your home, dealing with a troubled child . . . We know about the dark places. We know about the pandemic that has upended our lives and left us in an unknowable, seemingly endless darkness.
We also know about struggling to get to light. We know about walking through the darkness for so long that we become almost desperate to see light again. The LIGHT—that amazing miracle that shatters the darkness and brightens our path.
Of course, we long for it! Sometimes we live through so much darkness—physical, emotional and spiritual darkness—that we almost need more than light. Sometimes we need release, room to breathe, freedom to experience. Sometimes we need an expanse above us, a newness we can fully experience and the inspiration to soar in the clouds until we sense something new and fresh. Sometimes we just need more than light.
So there is light, and then there are the Northern Lights. And we can at least see them in images. When we do see them, our souls might take a deep breath. These lights are different than the lights we usually count on. These Lights of the North are more than the lights that guide us along the journey and through the darkness. These lights are almost mystical—light and color and vastness. These are lights that come as if God is writing “hope” in the sky with an electric-neon crayon. Angela Abraham describes the Northern Lights in a unique way.
The Northern lights were a river of green in the midnight blue. They were what dreams could be if they were ever allowed to dance so free. The northern lights were green rivers in the black heavens, a congregation of stars, how they resonate with my soul.
— Angela Abraham
That’s it! Lights that resonate with the soul. For you, the light that feeds your soul could come from the light of brilliant stars, or moonlight, or sunrise, or even holiday lights. For me on this day, my soul awakened when I took the time to see the splendor of the Northern Lights. In a way I can’t really explain, I looked and I lingered, and then the dancing green light against the black sky caused my spirit to take flight, just for a few minutes. I realized that this was not just about light, it was also about indescribable beauty that can be seen best in God’s creation.
In the words of Angela Abraham, ”Nature’s beauty is an echo of creation’s song, it lives out there and within, as if we are spoken into being together.” I was transported to thoughts of a Creator who gave us not only life and breath, but also gave us extravagant beauty.
Maybe you need more than light right now. When circumstances are dark and bleak in my life, I often need more than light. In fact, like most strugglers and travelers on this journey of life, I have learned to get around in the dark. Most of the time, I can walk through darkness blindly and reach my destination. Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, ”Learning to Walk in the Dark,” is filled with bits of wisdom that I hang on to when I’m in a dark place.
Ihave learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light. There is a light that shines in the darkness, which is only visible there.
— Barbara Brown Taylor
It is true that sometimes I need more than light. Sometimes I need a grace-gift that reminds me that I am a small speck in a vast universe, and that the Creator that formed our immense, extravagant, beautiful world also created us, each of us tiny specks known by God. Sometimes I need more than light, but what I need is already mine to see—a world filled with beauty that takes my breath away.
Oh, just one more thing about me . . . when beauty really reaches the deep places of my soul, I often burst into song. For today, looking at the beauty of the Lights of the North, I am singing John Rutter’s, ”For the Beauty of the Earth.” Maybe you would like to sing it too, or at least listen to it. Find it below, turn up your volume and give praise to the Creator for giving us the beauty of the earth.
For the beauty of the earth, For the beauty of the skies, For the love which from our birth Over and around us lies, Lord of all, to thee we raise This our hymn of grateful praise.
For the beauty of each hour Of the day and of the night, Hill and vale, and tree and flow’r, Sun and moon, and stars of light, Lord of all, to thee we raise This our hymn of grateful praise.
For the joy of human love, Brother, sister, parent, child, Friends on earth, and friends above, For all gentle thoughts and mild, Lord of all, to thee we raise This our hymn of grateful praise.
Music by John Rutter (1980) Lyrics by Folliott S. Pierpoint, 1835-1917
Throughout my life there were times, many of them, when the only thing I could do was pray. In spite of knowing that praying was the very best thing that I could do, my soul held a kind of dark, helpless, hopeless sadness. My brother’s serious illness has taken me into that “dark night.” Thinking of him in the hospital’s ICU fighting the ravages of the coronavirus brought me to darkness, especially at night while trying to fall asleep. Lying in bed, I experienced panic attacks. Being unable to visit him brought even more darkness to my spirit. The fear of losing him triggered every past trauma I have suffered throughout my life.
The dark night! The unknown! Yes, I fear it. I dread it. And it is here with me now.
The writing of Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross (1542–1591) gave me a kind of marker that helped me measure my current experience of “the dark night.” He described his darkness as a place of“unknowing.”
Yet when I saw myself there
Without knowing where I was
I understood great things;
I shall not say what I felt
For I remained in unknowing
Transcending all knowledge.
— St John of the Cross
I suspect that every person has sometimes been in places I can only describe as the “dark night of the soul.”It is a place most people experience as abandonment by God. It is a place where I have found myself many times. And yes, I fear it. I dread it. Perhaps you fear it, too.
Many people believe that the dark night of the soul comes to them because of something they have done, some sin they have committed that results in God’s absence. Yet, we find the experience of darkness in the life stories of those we think of as having been faithful followers of God. People such as Mother Teresa, C. S. Lewis, Henri Nouwen and Martin Luther. Each of these suffered particularly intense episodes of the “dark night of the soul.”
In his secret journal, Henri Nouwen wrote about a dark season in 1988 in which he could not feel God’s love.He had brought millions of others into a more tender and intimate experience with God, but he writes that he was in a “dark night of the soul.”
C.S. Lewis’s dark night came after the death of his wife Joy, the love of his life who died four years after their marriage. Lewis explained that he experienced the emotional pain of Absence — not just the absence of his wife, but the immense Absence of God, his “dark night of the soul.”
Mother Teresa’s darkness came at the very founding of her Missionaries of Charity and lasted to the end of her life, with little respite. Martin Luther’s dark night plagued him as a young monk, and then in several other forms as a Reformer.
The dark night! The unknown! Yes, I fear it. I dread it.
It is for me a time when prayer is my only response. At least, what I understand of prayer. At times I have found myself turning to music to quiet my soul in my darkest night. One song that I turn to almost every time in the darkness is “The Prayer” written by Carole Bayer Sager, David Foster, Tony Renis and Alberto Testa. “The Prayer” is a song of safety and inspiration.
Carole Bayer Sager speaks about how the song’s theme of safety is so important to her:
I think it embodies everything I looked for my whole life. “Lead us to the place, guide us with your grace, to a place where we’ll be safe.” I didn’t find that safety until my mid-40s.
I wonder if the words and thoughts in “The Prayer” might comfort you on this day, reading its words and listening to the video I’ve embedded below.
Ipray you’ll be our eyes
And watch us where we go
And help us to be wise
In times when we don’t know
Let this be our prayer
When we lose our way
Lead us to a place
Guide us with your grace
To a place where we’ll be safe.
I pray we’ll find your light
And hold it in our hearts
When stars go out each night
Remind us where you are.
Let this be our prayer
When shadows fill our day
Lead us to a place
Guide us with your grace
To a place where we’ll be safe.
A world where pain and
sorrow will be ended
And every heart that’s
broken will be mended
And we’ll remember we
are all God’s children Reaching out to touch you
Reaching to the sky.
We ask that life be kind
And watch us from above
We hope each soul will find
Another soul to love.
Let this be our prayer
Just like every child
Needs to find a place
Guide us with your grace.
Give us faith so we’ll be safe.
The dark night!The unknown!Yes, we fear it. We dread it. Praying ourselves through it may seem impossible.
Yet, might we look at darkness and the unknown in another way by reflecting on the creation story in Genesis? When I consider God’s creation of day, and night, it seems that God’s astounding creation of day and night reside in a continuum where neither are bad. They just are! When I consider our gift of “In the beginning,”I cannot help but look on in awe and wonder as God and Spirit create light out of darkness.
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.”
God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the fourth day. — Genesis 1:1-3, 16-19
God saw that it was good. In that, I have confidence. I see the brightness of the day, andthe night, nightthat God has filled with a glowing moon and glistening stars — light in darkness. Perhaps this thought, this truth of Scripture, will help us to not fear the darkness of night, for without it, we would can never enjoy its light. And as for the dark night of the soul, the unknown that we so fear, perhaps we can embrace it as a place to linger and to wait for the Spirit to guide us into the realization of God’s presence, even as we are experiencing God’s absence.
One of my favorite writers, Mirabai Starr, knows about the way of unknowing personally and intimately. She describes what happens between the soul and God in the “dark night:”
The soul in the dark night cannot, by definition, understand what is happening to her. . . . she does not realize that the darkness is a blessing. She feels miserable and unworthy, convinced that God has abandoned her, afraid she may herself be turning against him. In her despair, the soul does not recognize that God is teaching her in a secret way now.
At the same time that the soul in the night becomes paralyzed . . .a sense of abundance starts to grow inside the emptied soul. . . . God will whisper to the soul in the depth of darkness and guide it through the wilderness of the Unknown.
Barbara Brown Taylor intentionally moved herself into an experience of forced darkness, a place where her intention was to stay there for a long period of time. In that darkness, she said this: “St. John of the Cross says that the dark night is God’s best gift to you, intended for your liberation.”
The dark night!The unknown!Yes, I still fear it. I will probably always dread it. But after being in dark spaces so many times, I think I can stay there now, knowing in my heart of hearts that my soul’s dark night really is God’s best gift to me, intended for my liberation.
The dark night!The unknown!Yes, I still fear it.
I may fear the darkness, but I love the stars.
Though my soul may set in darkness,
it will rise in perfect light; I have loved the stars too fondly
to be fearful of the night.
― Sarah Williams, Twilight Hours: A Legacy Of Verse
In my soul’s darkest nights, I learned that the light of the stars is always there, even in the times when I cannot see them. I also learned something profound about prayer — something so profound, so holy and intimate — that I am at a loss to describe it. I learned that a part of prayer in the dark is the miracle that Spirit holds me close and God whispers to my soul.
I know that the stars still comfort me in the dark, that in the darkest of my soul’s nights, I can still pray. For that, I give thanks to God.